7 Tips to Help a Distracted Child

Marilyn Wedge, PhD
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These simple tips will help a child who is distracted, inattentive, or having problems focusing on his or her school work. They are also useful for any child and can even prevent inattentiveness in an ever-more-distracting world.

    1.  Keep a calm home environment. This means not yelling at your child if he doesn’t mind you or settle down to do his homework. Of course, every parent can be pushed to the extreme and “loses it” occasionally. If you do find yourself screaming, simply apologize to your child and reassure him that you love him while explaining that his behavior is sometimes frustrating.
    2. Limit media distractions in your home. Many children are not as good at filtering out noise as adults are. This means that having the television on while your child is trying to do her homework may interfere with her ability to concentrate. Limit your child to one hour of “screen time” per day, including television, electronic games, and other forms of eye candy. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that early exposure to television is associated with a diagnosis of ADHD in children. They also recommend that parents not put a television set in the child’s room and that you keep the home’s TV turned off when you are not watching a specific program. You can find additional AAP recommendations on children and media here.
    3. Have your child’s vision and hearing tested. If your child suddenly starts to have trouble at school, take him to the pediatrician for a vision and hearing test. Sometimes a child is not able to express that he is having trouble seeing or hearing clearly. Several times in my experience, a child’s teacher thought he might have serious attention issues when the real problem was nearsightedness.
    4. Stay positive in your child’s presence. Don’t argue with your spouse or partner when your child is around. Surprisingly, children worry about their parents just as much as their parents worry about them. Hearing parents argue or even talk in loud voices can be scary to a child. Even if the arguments are not serious, to a child’s vivid imagination arguments might signify that her parents are headed for a divorce. Tell your child only the good things in your life, and keep the arguments for when the child is not present. Even if your child is in the other room, she can still hear your tone of voice and pick up on angry feelings. Remember, “little pitchers have big ears.” To air out the differences that inevitably occur in every marriage or partnership, parents should think about having lunch together or taking a walk together without the kids to have their disagreements and clear the air.
    5. Be “in the moment” with your child at least once every day. Find a few minutes each day when you can focus 100% of your attention on your child: Read him a book, play a short board game, or make a drawing or a painting together. If you prefer outdoor games, go to the park and play basketball or tennis with your child. Turn off your smartphone, computer, and TV to avoid distractions.
    6. Set clear rules and enforce them consistently. Parents should come to an agreement about the rules and consequences concerning their child and back each other up. Being on the same page about discipline is especially crucial if a child is having trouble focusing. When parents ask me about a good book on discipline, I always recommend 1-2-3 Magic: 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. His method really works, especially for younger children.
    7. Enroll your child in a sport to channel her extra energy. If your child is “hyper,” she may need more outlets for her energy. Remember, Olympic gold medal swimmer Michael Phelps had trouble focusing in the classroom and was diagnosed with ADHD. After being on medication for four years, Phelps decided that the medication was an unnecessary crutch. With the help and support of his doctor, he weaned himself off it at age 13. Phelps learned to control his inattentiveness at school by using the power of his mind and found a wholesome outlet for his extra energy in competitive swimming.

26 COMMENTS

  1. Let me start out the discussion by positing that “distraction” is not a neutral concept; it contains within it a judgement about what the child (or anyone) should be focused on, as opposed to what they actually choose to focus on. So it’s a question of who makes this determination.

    • This is true for basically all the DSM diagnoses. All contain a social judgment about what is “good” and “bad” behavior, and try to explain “bad” behavior by arguments re: faulty wiring or brain chemistry. The DSM is a clever way of disguising social judgments and criticism as a neutral “medical diagnosis.” It’s quite insidious.

    • Oldhead

      It’s much better to raise a critical or important point (in this case a good one) AFTER your overall take on the blog. People put much effort into these writings to make MIA better and advance our overall struggle against the Medical Model. These writers deserve positive feedback when it is warranted.

      Marilyn

      Very good blog – contains much wisdom.

      Richard

      • Hey Richard,

        I thought it was a great blog on general good parenting tips. I did not think any of it was specific to a distracted child. I would hope that all parents were practicing these things with all children.

        I’m with Oldhead on questioning the validity of the concept of distraction in children because it’s invariably used to describe kids who don’t function well in the current educational paradigm. I have never once heard of a free range kid being too distracted to learn from a parent teaching them in a natural environment.

        We have reduced the knowledge of the world to abstract concepts taught from the pages of textbooks in rigid overcrowded classroom environments. While it’s laudible to want to increase the educational level of a populous, our educational institutions have been in a constant state of failure and reform almost since their inception. What started out as an effort to make sure everyone had a basic understanding of the three Rs has turned into a system where parents largely can’t opt out and are forced to send their children to be raised by institutions where they will be pathologized if they don’t pay adequate attention or if they have more energy than can be “managed” in a classroom setting.

        We now have a population of families that by and large can not afford to have one adult stay at home and raise good citizens so it gets left to the state with little ability to rethink whether the institution really serves us as a whole.

        We have large urban centers full of people who behave as little more than automatons, making daily movements to and from “work” to make money for corporations and their stockholders so they can fill their homes with cheap crap from Walmart, and precious few willing to examine why we are all so miserable with this lifestyle.

        Our families and communities are broken and fewer and fewer people have the time or energy to attempt to fix anything.

        So I don’t think Oldhead’s criticism that there is something wrong with the premise is wrong because something is wrong with the assumption that government schools are good and the locus of control for fixing children’s distraction should be placed inside the child who isn’t being served by a broken system.

        We need to end the school to prison pipeline and it has to start with fixing (or – gasp – abolishing!) the institutions, and not with blaming the child for malfunctioning in a broken system.

        • “What started out as an effort to make sure everyone had a basic understanding of the three Rs…”

          I would contest that this was the original purpose of universal public schooling. Documents from the time (mid- to late-1800s) suggest that the main purpose was to create “good citizens,” which pretty much meant people who could read and write enough to participate in society but who were conditioned to behave and know their stations in life. There was big concern at the time regarding both freed slaves and immigrants from Italy, Ireland, Poland, China, etc. threatening the supremacy of the white male elite of the time. They wanted to train compliance to authority, and you can see the essential principle of compliance to authority running through all but very unusual schools. So like psychiatry, the idea that “the system is broken” doesn’t necessarily hold true if the purpose is not to help people, but instead to control them.

          • Steve, this is totally fair criticism. The original intent I described is how it was sold to ordinary citizens and not what was intended by those orchestrating the system.

            The original intent of public education has far more to do with economic and political principles favoring white landholders and at its core our educational system is used primarily as a means of social control.

            I should have made that more clear and not implied that the system ever had actual good intentions.

        • Kindredspirit and Oldhead

          You have made some very powerful points in your response to this blog.

          As for my advice to Oldhead, this relates to some longstanding discussion and disagreements we have had about how to dialogue in the comment section at MIA.

          For the most part, I find Oldhead’s comments at MIA to be some of the very best, most educational, and challenging. At times however, he undercuts the power of his overall role in the comment section by some of his methods of struggle.

          Why not give an author (or other commenter) credit for the good work they have done, and point some main areas where there is agreement, BEFORE launching into the minutiae of disagreements? This, of course, is a general comment about writing style and can’t (and shouldn’t) always be applied, BUT more often that not.

          My goal in even bringing this up is to help make Oldhead’s comments play an even more powerful role at MIA.

          Comradely, Richard

          • Hey Richard, I don’t disagree with you in concept and I’m probably arguing semantics here. But I think to start that we have a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of “work” as you’re using it as a value measurement. As it’s currently defined, the vast majority of labor in the world is exploitative and the system continues because of largely unquestioned societal values about hard “work” being good and godly and such. It’s easy to suppress the lower classes with concepts of work and fairness when work is used as a value judgement.

            I think what you really mean is a little more Mary Poppins at its core and has nothing to do with “work”. Known as the carrot and stick theory in business management – essentially it’s easier to accept criticism if it is first dampened by praise, however faint. A little sugar helps the medicine go down and all that?

          • Kindredspirirt

            You’re missing the essence of point my here, and your use of sarcasm with the “Mary Poppins” analogy makes it even clearer to me.

            Most people who write here at MIA are not being paid (or somehow seeking ego building recognition) for their writings. And I think most of those who are being paid, would describe it as a “labor of love” (a meaningful, and potentially world changing, investment of time and labor) in a world full of life and death struggles where powerful words may make positive difference.

            In the evolutionary and Revolutionary process of seeking a higher truth, it is helpful to point out what is correct in someone’s writings or research, BEFORE moving on to what may be incorrect and/or falling short of the truth. It helps the overall process of learning.

            For example: even Karl Marx, who provided the world with a devastating critique of capitalism and why it must be replaced by socialism and then communism, made a clear historical analysis as to how the capitalist system was actually a major ADVANCE over the feudalistic system, and how the rise of capitalism set up the material conditions for a new historical stage, by bringing the (the formerly scattered) toiling masses into socialized living and working conditions, so they would be able to collectively understand and ultimately collectively organize against their fundamental (and no longer necessary) oppression.

            And frankly, in regards to some MIA discussions, what I am talking about here is simply – BASIC HUMAN RESPECT among those people who are clearly on the same *oppressed* side of barricades at this moment in history. “Unite all who can be united!”

            Richard

          • Richard, I was not being sarcastic and you took offense where none was intended to begin with.

            I will adamantly defend against the way you’re bashing someone for not conforming to your social values. I disagree with the concept that “work” has intrinsic value, regardless of whether it originated from a place of necessity or devotion.

            I agree with the concept that it is easier for criticism to be taken if praise is received first. I’m sorry you found my lighthearted example offensive.

            I do not believe that an author’s labor should be respected and praised out of hand. I certainly do not respect many writers and consider the labor wasted and a lot of writing hateful and harmful. So no, I don’t believe that praising hard work amounts to basic human respect. I don’t generally praise fellow commenters, though many also “work” hard on their thorough and helpful responses.

            I do not say that sarcastically. It was not my intention to start an argument with you. Your issues with Oldhead aside, I believe the concept of work as intrinsically valuable is worth contesting.

          • I do think that humans enjoy engaging in productive behavior. I think the problem comes from who gets to define what is “productive.” Nobody enjoys slaving away for someone else’s benefits. Nobody likes someone else telling them that if they don’t do as indicated, they will starve to death. The concept of “work” has been co-opted by our exploitative culture into meaning “doing what someone else says you have to do.” This starts early in school, where “work” is defined as what the teachers make you do, while anything you personally enjoy is considered “play” and defined as non-productive or even wasteful. If we can overcome this kind of brainwashing, it can be true that “work” as in productive activity as defined by ourselves and those we care about is in fact extremely valuable. It is wage slavery that reduces the concept of “work” to something odious.

          • Why not give an author (or other commenter) credit for the good work they have done, and point some main areas where there is agreement, BEFORE launching into the minutiae of disagreements?

            Because I don’t think mature people need to be emotionally coddled, and consider excessive “insecurity” to be an ego problem, and start with the assumption that we all are adults here and primarily interested in the subject at hand, not our personal “feelings.”

            However my above comment was not a “disagreement” anyway. It was more of a semantic point of order to help set the tone of whatever followed.

            Probably the last thing I need right now is to have a more “powerful” presence at MIA. I would much prefer that my analyses be understood, articulated and expanded upon by many people — I’m not gonna be here forever. In fact my most supposedly “radical” statements are pretty platitudinous to me, i.e. basic common sense; my hope (and strong belief) is that as time goes by anti-psychiatry understanding will become more part of the collective consciousness. At any rate, I don’t plan to be the “go-to” guy. This can only be a group effort.

          • I believe the concept of work as intrinsically valuable is worth contesting

            God, looks like I’m never gonna get out of here today —

            Just to add another 2 cents: what constitutes socially definable “work” must be based on what society considers valuable; in this society there is no consensus as to what we collectively aspire to.

          • Oldhead

            Please don’t try to stand above this kind of discussion about the need and desire of human beings (on some level) to be understood and accepted by others, by using the so-called “mature people” argument.

            At times at MIA, you (if you’re honest) just like any other person vigorously participating here, has been affected by occasional feelings of being “isolated” in certain particular hot discussions.

            However, this totally avoids my main point which is NOT fundamentally about hurting people’s “feelings” in conducting political discussion among potential “friends.”

            This is about building principled unity (over time) and grasping how we arrive at truth.

            Sometimes the very essence of your “good comments” here at MIA may NEVER have occurred unless someone took the risk to delineate their analysis in a blog, and/or comment. Their writings stimulated you to carefully evaluate the heart of their analysis and how consistent, or not, they carried forward their analysis to their final conclusions about where this all leads us.

            That stimulation I am describing here, may have caused you to think creatively BEYOND where you previously were at with your overall analysis of psychiatry, the Medical Model etc. The struggle for the truth is very much a social process and no one can claim they “always had it.” It is important to give credit where credit is due, even when people fall shy of “perfection.”

            It really does help overall dialogue (on both a political AND personal level) to acknowledge whether or not someone’s analysis is mainly, or overwhelming, a positive contribution to our growth in knowledge, AND then point out where it falls short.

            Oldhead, no one here is asking you to be the “go to guy” here. I believe your “good ideas” could go much further in the struggle against psychiatry if you improve “a few” of your methods of communication in these dialogues.

            Richard

          • Sounds more like a lecture about how to be polite, Richard. I give credit where credit is due in my estimation. Unless Marilyn has complained privately to you about feeling dissed I don’t know why you would apply your concerns to this discussion, as I never criticized the article in any way. I did question the concept of “distraction.” That’s all. My comments either resonate or they don’t, no need to unduly ruminate about them.

          • Kindredspirit

            You said: “I will adamantly defend against the way you’re BASHING [my emphasis] someone for not conforming to your social values.”

            Where and how did I ever “BASH” anyone in my above comment???

            Any objective reading of my above comments to Oldhead, would view them as nothing more than “constructive criticism” between comradely activists who are against psychiatry and an oppressive capitalist/imperialist world.

            Kindredspirit, I took NO offense to your use of sarcasm in a past comment, I only disagreed with how you used it. BUT I DO take offense to your characterizing of my feedback to Oldhead as “bashing.”

            On a second reading, don’t you view your use of the word “bashing” as quite extreme in this context?

            Richard

          • Richard, I have repeatedly said I was not being sarcastic. I don’t appreciate the continued accusation after I said I was being quite serious. (https://www.madinamerica.com/2019/01/contributory-injustice-psychiatry/)

            I would appreciate if you would address the subject matter of the concerns I raised about the concept of work being problematic and enforcing your social values that others don’t necessarily share instead of turning this into an argument about Oldhead. I’m not prepared to play along with the deflections any more.

          • Posting as moderator: This is not directed at a specific person, but it seems we are diverging from a discussion of the topic at hand. It is best not to make comments that characterize other people’s actions or beliefs. I’d like to see the commentary return to the subject of the blog. I’d add that if another commenter is feeling hurt or misunderstood, it is best to attempt to find out why rather than continuing to insist we were correct in our original comment. Or simply to apologize and clarify or move on. I hope everyone reading can apply this here – I don’t want to start removing posts, but this exchange is getting too personal and hurtful to allow it to continue in the same vein.

          • This is basically a question of what constitutes socially valuable work vs. alienated labor that KS is raising, which I believe is within the purview of this discussion.

          • What diverted the thread was not an expressed concern of the author herself, but a preemptive worry by Richard that she wouldn’t be able to handle a rather mundane point I was making about the term “distraction.” So a molehill turned into a mountain, which I actually attempted to correct, if you’ll note the next thread.

      • It’s much better to raise a critical or important point (in this case a good one) AFTER your overall take on the blog.

        I’m not a parent so most of the specifics are not my area of expertise. Recognizing the nuances of language is important however, and cannot detract from the overall conversation (though it may make it more complicated).